Behind Bars in Venezuela

Family members of prisoners hold up banners and posters with messages demanding better prison conditions
Family members of prisoners at Yare prison, southeast of Caracas, hold up banners and posters with messages demanding better prison conditions in 2002. (Photo: Andrew Alvarez / AFP-Getty Images)

European and North American nationals tend to end up in Venezuelan prisons because of drug smuggling convictions. Yet the trials of poverty in a land of plenty scarcely prepare these prisoners for the 19th-century prison conditions they find here.

Besides the deficient judicial and penitentiary systems, prisoners abroad find themselves locked up in a strange land where they don’t speak the language. Although their families live in developed countries, these relatives are most often poor, and can’t easily support their imprisoned family member. In the pitiless world of Venezuelan prisons, prisoners abroad also encounter discrimination because of their nationality.

Among the hazards prisoners abroad face, slight medical care, language barriers, and money demands endanger their human rights, and sometimes their very lives. Take the example of a European prisoner in Venezuela who suffered the awful luck of having all of the above perils come to bear on his deteriorating health.

“I have epilepsy, dental problems, spastic colon due to a poor diet … and pancreas problems (I think) … I’m not sure due to communication. I do have to take pills, which I don’t have because I have to buy them. I would like to see somebody who could explain what’s wrong … I’m completely in the dark with pain in my stomach and teeth falling out.”

Some of this prisoner’s health problems started with bad or insufficient food, then got worse because of a language barrier, and lack of money. As for the medical care itself, this prisoner lacked free medicine and most likely saw a doctor only every once in a while. The prisoner probably lived in a dirty, decrepit, and overcrowded prison where infectious diseases fester.

For prisoners abroad, embassies play a critical support role. Although they avoid getting involved in their citizens’ cases, embassies provide valuable support through interpretation, consular visits, free reading materials, and loans. Alone and far from home, prisoners abroad rely heavily on their embassies to look out for them.

In exceptional cases where the prisoner has received an unfair trial, embassies may play a more active role. A famous recent example comes in Lori Berenson in Peru where the American activist was tried and convicted on terrorism charges by a group of hooded judges. As a foreign country’s local stand-in, an embassy can pull some weight. It can even get a prisoner transferred to a prison back home where conditions seem a world away.

Looking Out for Your Own

Venezuela’s location on the Caribbean Sea as well as its proximity to Colombia make it a drug trafficking hub. The illegal drug trade attracts people from all over Latin America and around the world, many of who end up in the country’s prison system.

According to the Venezuelan Prison Observer, an N.G.O. that defends the human rights of all local prisoners, foreign prisoners make up about 1,500 of the nearly 19,000 people incarcerated in Venezuela. Of these 1,500 prisoners, most are Latin American, and a few are North American or European.

The Netherlands accounts for 45 prisoners as well as two children who live with their imprisoned mothers. Most Dutch nationals in the Venezuelan prison system actually hail from the Dutch Antilles, and nearly all ended up here because of drug trafficking convictions, according to the Dutch Embassy. Around 40 American nationals are incarcerated in Venezuela, almost all of them because of drug trafficking as well.

The Dutch and American embassies provide similar services to their imprisoned nationals. Yet as diplomatic missions embassies can only do so much. “We can meet their right to an interpreter, but no more,” said Sahaila La Cruz, judicial attaché at the Dutch Embassy, indicating the extent of an embassy’s direct involvement with a case. “We don’t interfere with the judicial system,” added Elsa Da Costa, the Dutch Embassy’s deputy chief of mission.

According to Matthew Cottrell, head of American Citizen Services at the American Embassy, it’s better not to get involved in anything but an official capacity. “We don’t get involved in their stories,” he said. Embassies provide neither friendship, nor professional advice. That doesn’t mean that embassies don’t watch over their imprisoned citizens, however.

“We keep abreast of their treatment,” said Da Costa. La Cruz added: “We help in what we can.”

Not getting involved doesn’t have to mean not caring, of course. Like the Dutch, the Americans make sure their prisoners get fair and equal treatment. “Our concern is that the [judicial] process isn’t discriminating against them,” said Cottrell. With that in mind, “ we serve as the liaison with lawyers,” added Cottrell.

Consular visits offer a welcome distraction to prisoners abroad as well as a chance to voice their concerns and complaints. Among embassies, the Dutch Embassy visits their imprisoned citizens perhaps more than any other country, about 11 times a year. The American Embassy, by contrast, pays a visit to each of its imprisoned citizens every six weeks before sentencing and only every three months after sentencing.

The American and Dutch embassies provide perhaps their greatest service through extraditions. The Dutch went from two extraditions in 2002 to nine in 2003 and 14 last year. They enjoy the advantage of the Strasbourg Convention, an extradition agreement between European countries and the rest of the world.

The American Embassy uses the Organization of American States’ (O.A.S.) InterAmerican Transfer Treaty to extradite imprisoned Americans. Late last year, the American Embassy extradited four Americans around the same time.

There’s no lack of extradition applications at the Ministry of Interior and Justice (M.I.J.), which approves these measures. Regrettably, the Ministry drags its feet on extraditions since they probably don’t represent a priority. Most foreign prisoners get their extradition request approved, but it can take up to 2 years.

Lorena Sanchez of the Venezuelan Prison Observer acknowledges that “foreigners receive slow attention.” This negligence, among other things, makes foreign prisoners an excluded class within the excluded, according to Sanchez.

“The foreigner is doubly imprisoned because he exists outside his own environment,” said Sanchez. By failing to provide interpreters, the courts establish unequal treatment for prisoners abroad. “The first problem is that people don’t understand the [judicial] process,” adds Sanchez.

Although prisoners abroad have to contend with some disadvantages, they also enjoy the support of their embassies, and though their families may be poor and far away, in many cases those relatives can better provide economically for imprisoned family members than poor people here. In many ways, however, prisoners abroad are at the mercy of the Venezuelan judicial and penitentiary systems just as much as their Venezuelan counterparts.

Sanchez attributes the prison system’s deplorable state to entrenched corruption and a lack of humanist values. “Besides [human] storage, they’re businesses,” she argues. Sanchez accuses prison officials of charging prisoners abroad for exchanging money as well as collaborating with prison mafias. “The authorities are guilty of complicity and negligence,” she concluded.

Although the policies exist, officials are unwilling to follow them, according to Sanchez. “The problem isn’t one of [policy] design, but of their application,” argued Sanchez. “But people don’t follow the norms. They don’t act ethically. A lack of investigations brings impunity.”

As Sanchez correctly points out, official corruption doesn’t take place in a bubble. From individual citizens to social groups, Venezuelan society tacitly allows its public institutions to decay. “As a society, we are experiencing a crisis of values,” said Sanchez.

If, as the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” what Venezuelan prisons have to say may shock you.

A Prisoner Abroad

“Welcome to the Los Teques Judicial Internment,” reads a sign at the entrance of what’s more commonly known as the Los Teques Prison. Los Teques holds over 800 prisoners, over twice as many as it was meant to. Located in a slum above the town of Los Teques, the prison compound is simple concrete, cheap and durable.

Outside, men and women wait in their respective lines, carrying food and clothes, among other things, for their loved ones inside. After undressing, and presenting identification, men drop off their ID cards at the door to one part of the prison. Inside, prisoners and staff hang out like high school students between periods. The building even looks like a high school except that the men one sees are hardly a bunch of harmless jocks and nerds. Regardless of their crimes, Los Teques prisoners are immersed in a daily struggle against prison conditions, each other, and themselves.

Once past the curious eyes in the hallways, one enters the unkempt coziness of a large cell, which is more like an apartment without bedrooms. Sheets and blankets have been hung to separate prisoners’ sleeping areas from each other. In lieu of painting, prisoners have wallpapered the cell with magazine and newspaper pages to cover up its unsightliness.

To enter the cell’s bathroom, you push aside a thick dirty blanket. The bathroom includes a metal latrine, and two plastic barrels of cold water from which prisoners wash their hands and themselves. Someone has stuck a jagged piece of mirror on the wall for prisoners to see themselves. A small window looks out on a green hill.

Several European prisoners live in this pavilion. Richard, not his real name, has been here nearly two years because of a drug trafficking conviction. Desperate for quick cash to pay some bills, Richard was looking for a job. He’d done some drug dealing in the past, so he knew where to look. He found a Nigerian contact that was looking for people without drug convictions who were willing to travel. Richard agreed to serve as a drug mule.

Armed with a free plane ticket and a wad of euros to cover his expenses, Richard met another Nigerian contact in Amsterdam who told him he’d be flying to either Aruba or Curazao. When his flight date arrived, it turned out he’d be flying to Venezuela instead.

Richard had the name of a Nigerian contact who picked him up at the Caracas airport. The local contact asked for his money for safekeeping, and dropped Richard off at a Plaza Venezuela hotel where he would spend the next week. Smack dab in the heart of the city’s red light district, Plaza Venezuela is drug dealing central, according to Richard.

When it came time to practice swallowing carrots, Richard couldn’t do it. One would imagine that Richard would have no choice about the matter considering everything that’d been invested in him. But the local contacts didn’t seem to give it much importance. They told Richard that instead of swallowing the drugs, he could carry three kilos of cocaine in a suitcase’s secret compartment. He had half a kilo on him, but when he asked about the other 2.5, his contacts told him not to worry.

On the way to pick up the 2.5 kilos from his contacts before going to the airport, he got a surprise. Joined by a woman he’d met that week, Richard was met by four Metropolitan Police (P.M.) officers as he exited his hotel. “I thought it was a joke, like Candid Camera,” said Richard.

Richard suspects that his contact was behind the surprise. A Nigerian he met in jail told him about a trick these guys play. Having already made their money from the European contacts, the local contacts inform on their mule, and keep the lion’s share of the drugs. This way, “they sell the drugs twice,” said Richard.

That seems a plausible theory, especially since the European contact will never know what really happened. Although playing this trick too often would risk losing the European contact, there’s probably no shortage of customers.

Richard spent several days at a C.I.C.P.C. jail where the reality of his situation started to set in. Before being caught, Richard had seen a TV news report about Venezuelan prisons. “I thought I’d be better off dead than being in jail,” said Richard.

But first he’d have to go through the Venezuelan judicial system. At first, Richard pled guilty as if to bide his time, while he figured out what to do. During the trial, he changed his plea to guilty, receiving a ten-year sentence instead of the maximum 15 years he would have gotten.

By most standards, Richard got lucky. At least, his trial and sentencing came speedily. In the worst cases, prisoners wait two years to go to trial and another two years for sentencing. Besides reducing his sentence, admitting his guilt no doubt sped up the process. Yet Venezuelan justice failed to impress Richard somehow.

The lawyers’ yelling made the trial more like “an American TV show,” said Richard. He claims that the trouble starts with the investigation. “The police grabbed the drugs not with gloves, but with their hands, which leaves fingerprints,” said Richard. “The investigation was very short and very simple. If you’re a foreigner, and you get caught with drugs, there’s no money for an investigation.”

When he arrived at Los Teques, Richard had to go through the welcome ritual. Luckily, a Nigerian he’d met at the C.I.C.P.C. jail had warned him about the rite. The pavilion leaders cornered Richard and put a gun to his head. “Take off your pants!” they yelled. Richard refused. Then they put a knife to his neck and repeated the demand. Again, Richard refused. “I’d rather die than undress,” he said. “I’m not a faggot.” Richard passed the test.

The pavilion joined in congratulating Richard for his defiant manhood. “They shook my hand, and told me I was a good man, that this was a family,” said Richard.

Richard didn’t know if he was going to make it. Besides the stink from the open toilet, he was forced to sleep on the dirty concrete floor. Due to overcrowding, the pavilion’s residents had to sleep in shifts. No wonder, then, that Richard didn’t sleep at all on his first night in Los Teques, and barely slept on his second night. He also didn’t eat for two days.

“Animals in Europe live better than that,” said Richard.

When Richard finally talked to his sister back in Europe, “there was a lot of crying going on.” Richard’s sister sends him 140 euros every month to cover basic expenses like food and rent. As the economist Milton Friedman famously remarked, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The weekly rent for floor space varies, but can reach 10,000 Venezuelan bolivars, or almost $5, depending on what suits the pavilion leaders.

To be sure, money represents a major concern for prisoners. Other prisoners think Richard has money because he’s European. “They ask me for money all day long,” he said. “I have to say no. Lots of these people don’t have money.”

Although Los Teques provides meals, Richard calls the food bad. “You can’t live from the food here,” claims Richard. He uses his money to buy groceries, which he cooks up at an electric stove in his cell. “Without money, you starve,” adds Richard.

Without money, you also don’t get any medicine. At Los Teques, a few small stores sell aspirin, two kinds of antibiotics, painkillers, and penicillin. But these medicines cost hard cash. Prisoners have died of appendicitis at Los Teques, according to Richard. “Without medicine, you die here,” he said.

Richard has been behind bars long enough to learn some Spanish, but still struggles with the language. “My Spanish is very bad,” he said. When “you can’t say what you want to say or feel,” life can be very frustrating, besides dangerous as the sickly prisoner cited above attests. But if the Venezuelan prison system can’t provide adequate food and health care, they’re hardly going to offer language classes.

As Sanchez indicated, the language barrier for prisoners abroad suggests the range of discrimination they endure. On visiting days, prisoners have to shower before visitors show up, so pavilion leaders order European prisoners to wake up at 5 a.m. to take the coldest showers. And Europeans without visitors aren’t even allowed in the cell during visits, according to Richard.

Richard also claims that pavilion leaders assign European prisoners the dirty work: “We have to clean the bathroom and empty the garbage.”

Relatively speaking, Richard’s first pavilion and his current one haven’t been violent. But most violence takes place between pavilions. During our conversation, Richard pauses to indicate a man with a pipe gun walking through the cell. But no shots sound. Perhaps he went to show it off to another prisoner, or get an expert to fiddle with it. He comes back a little later presumably to put it away.

A couple weekends before our conversation, prisoners from one pavilion shot at visitors at another. Richard manages to stay out of trouble even if sometimes trouble finds him. He was recently stabbed and robbed outside his pavilion.

There’s no rape in his pavilion, says Richard, although he has heard of cases in other pavilions. Rape at Los Teques is a family affair, however, with up to 15 prisoners getting in on it. He claims to never have been raped.

For Richard, the prison is set up in such a way that arms become indispensable. “We are on our own,” he said. “We need weapons” to deter violence, and because “other pavilions have guns.”

Before long, Richard might be leaving all this madness behind for a prison in his native country. His embassy has been working around the clock to get him extradited. “I owe them a lot of thanks,” said Richard. “They’ve helped me a lot.”

Asked about the state of the prison system, Richard calls it “very pitiful.” The cash-strapped system forces prisoners to pay for their own transportation to court during hearings or trials as well as between prisons, pushing back many such transfers. To call the system absurd seems generous when prisoners even have to rent their own handcuffs as Richard once did. Although the food has improved at Los Teques and the water-holding plastic barrels have replaced rusty metal ones, fundamental change seems far off.

Prisoners Abroad, a British N.G.O. that defends the rights of European prisoners abroad, calls Venezuela’s prison system among the worst in the world. Instead of rehabilitation, these prisons seem designed for cruel and unusual punishment such that the opposite of rehabilitation seems more likely. Considering prison conditions, plus the want of training and work programs along with ex-convict reinsertion programs, a released prisoner likely leaves more hardened and violent than he entered.

About his impending departure, Richard confesses to feeling “delighted.” He adds: “This is the biggest punishment you can give someone. I want to see my family and friends.” Richard has learned his lesson, saying he intends to “live an honest life” when he gets out of prison.

Richard talks as if he’s being permanently released from prison, although he still has eight years to serve. Yet it makes perfect sense that compared to what he has lived through at Los Teques going back home would look like freedom. For Richard, it’s almost as if he’d already left. “[My sister] cannot wait. I cannot wait. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.”

José Orozco is a freelance writer in Caracas, Venezuela.

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